A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 2, 2022

Why the Russians Are Struggling To Supply Their Forces in Ukraine

Having failed to capture airfields and railways, the Russians are dependent on road-bound trucks which are inefficient and vulnerable to ambush. 

In addition, the Russian army's emphasis on tanks and artillery increases their logistical challenge because tanks are gas guzzlers (hence the many abandoned, undamaged) while artillery ammo is heavy, is used quickly and puts a strain on resupply. The shortages of food and adequate clothing is due to corruption and competing demands for supplies from field commanders under pressure to deliver results. The combination - on top of historically poor Russian transportation - created the morass in which they find themselves. JL    

Steven Fidler and Thomas Grove report in the Wall Street Journal, image Thomas Peter, Reuters:

Behind the front lines, a failure in supplying and maintaining the troops in the field has critically hobbled Moscow’s invasion plans. Russian forces have struggled with the transport of fuel, ammunition, food and clothing for soldiers at the front. “The Russians did not properly plan for sustainment.” The “lavish logistical system” employed by the U.S. "made people immune to the reality of logistics, just assuming it will get done. Operational commanders are competing for resources,(and) they were trying to support five or six axes of advance in a hugely spread-out arc."

Russia’s army has suffered serious losses as it has battled fierce Ukrainian resistance. Behind the front lines, a less visible failure in supplying and maintaining the troops in the field has critically hobbled Moscow’s invasion plans, according to Western intelligence assessments.

Russia’s weaknesses in logistics—the tail of support and services that enable combat forces to live, move, communicate and fight—were evident just days after the invasion was launched on Feb. 24. They have continued weeks into the campaign, according to Western officials and private military analysts.

After failing to rapidly capture the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and oust the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russia now says it will focus its military efforts on what it now calls its primary objective, the “liberation of the Donbas” area in the country’s east.

While analysts warn that their understanding of the invasion is incomplete, the evidence for shortcomings in Russian logistics is evident in verified social-media footage of stalled Russian convoys and broken-down tanks, some confirmed by commercial satellite photographs. Russian forces have struggled with the transport of fuel and ammunition as well as food and clothing for soldiers at the front.

“We continue to see indications that the Russians did not properly plan for logistics and sustainment,” said Pentagon press spokesman John Kirby in late March. “We know that they continue to have fuel issues across their force, and that they are still struggling with food.”

Russian towns near the border with Ukraine have organized drives to deliver food, clothes, socks and footwear to soldiers who have been on operations or exercises for months, while individual volunteers have coordinated over Russian social media site VK to collect and distribute food and clothing.

Russia’s military doesn’t seem to have overcome many of the logistical problems suffered by the Red Army, analysts say. Over history, logistical problems have undermined many military campaigns, with armies facing tight budgets sometimes skimping on logistics to focus on new weapons and fighting forces.

In Ukraine, Russia began the war by mounting a complex multipronged offensive using land, air and seaborne forces. It quickly lost steam. “The last time the Russian army did something this big was the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 where there wasn’t an active enemy,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mr. Barry said more than 170,000 Russian troops are estimated to have been committed to Ukraine in about 130 units, known as battalion tactical groups. When the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003, similar numbers of U.S. troops were committed in fewer than 50 BTGs. The reason for the difference: the large proportion of the U.S. force being used for logistics and the transportation of fuel, ammunition, water and food.

Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said military experts may have been deceived by the “lavish logistical system” employed by the U.S. in the past three decades. “What the U.S. has done has made people immune to looking at the reality of logistics and just assuming it will get done,” he said.

He said the complexity of the Russian operation compounded problems of logistics. “What they were actually trying to do was logistically bonkers. They were trying to support five or six different axes of advance in a hugely spread-out arch, all the way from west of Kyiv, all of that bulge of eastern Ukraine, down to Crimea.”

One of the biggest problems facing the Russian army’s logistics is the absence of an effective coordinated logistical command, which forces units from Russia’s eastern, southern and central military districts to compete with one another to secure supply lines.

“That means that the three operational commanders are relying on themselves for supply and competing between themselves for resources,” said Mark Galeotti, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based security think tank.

He said Russia’s announced plans to focus fighting on the east, if realized, would help Moscow pivot away from the tenuous lines that have been stretched out to support the assault on Kyiv and focus more on Donbas to ease logistical problems.

Almost all outside experts have concluded that Russia’s initial war plan—a lightning strike by airborne units into Kyiv that would meet little resistance and quickly decapitate the government—wouldn’t have needed such elaborate supply lines.

“They [invaded] profoundly unready for sustained offensive operations,” said Scott Boston, a defense analyst at the Rand Corp. Some units ran out of fuel on day three of the campaign.

The Ukrainian defense also harassed stretched Russian supply lines from the side and rear. Many military analysts suspect this was part of Ukraine’s battle plan and no accident, though some Ukrainian units may have been left behind by Russia’s rapid advance and decided on their own to harass vulnerable supply and fuel trucks. Partisans also got into the act.

Russian forces at home are heavily reliant on rail for moving supplies around. Except in the south where Russian forces secured the city of Kherson, Moscow wasn’t able to secure any other major railheads, leaving it dependent on roads and trucks.

Logistical problems multiplied and were worsened by poor communications. “The more you advance, the more you extend your logistical line, the higher the complexity,” said Yohann Michel, a research analyst at IISS.

With little evidence that Russian forces established their own supply dumps inside Ukraine, resupply trucks had to shuttle long distances back and forth, themselves needing to refuel. Clips on social media also show much of this equipment was poorly maintained, perhaps coming out of yearslong storage.

“If one truck shows up and fuels three or four vehicles and then turns around and goes back, I don’t know how long you think you can do this,” said Mr. Boston.  The farther the journeys, the more challenging the refueling—particularly when supply lines haven’t been secured.

Military analysts say there are special challenges to supplying heavily motorized forces like the Russians have extensively deployed in Ukraine. While Russian tanks in Ukraine are generally lighter than their Western counterparts, their tracked vehicles aren’t fuel efficient—increasing the challenge of keeping them active.

While fuel consumption will depend on speed and terrain, tanks are huge gas guzzlers. Mr. Boston says that, as a rough estimate, a T-72B variant tank—the workhorses in Ukraine—would use 5.8 gallons per hour just to idle, and 1 mile a gallon or significantly less when moving.

Two elite regiments appear to have been particularly plagued by breakdowns.

Mr. Boston said the 12th and 13th tank regiments, both part of the Fourth Tank Division and the only formations using T80U tanks, suffered heavy losses in the campaign as they moved westward from the Russian border.

More than 40 of the units’ tanks were abandoned or captured undamaged, according to reports verified by the Oryx website. These tanks have powerful gas-turbine engines but there is a major downside—very heavy fuel consumption.

“It’s like a full third of those vehicles in those two regiments may have just run out of gas,” Mr. Boston said.

After its first lightning strike failed, Russia switched to one of its old standbys: using artillery. Most Russian artillery strikes use unguided weapons that can extract a huge human toll when attacking cities—without necessarily achieving any useful strategic objective.

They also create an onerous demand on logistics. Artillery ammunition is enormously heavy and some big Russian systems can consume tons of it rapidly. A rocket launcher such as the self-propelled BM-27 Uragan can fire its 16 barrels in minutes. “To refuel it, you basically require a lorry just as big to carry the same number of rockets,” said Mr. Barry.

Even a shell for a 152 mm howitzer weighs about 100 pounds. Each gun will carry about 50 rounds, and a brigade several thousand, Mr. Boston said.

He said the Russian military gives priority to logistics bringing ammunition to artillery units. “The demand for bringing the artillery in means you now have a competing demand for logistics. They’re obviously not the same trucks as the fuel trucks but you obviously have to get it there,” Mr. Boston said.

The Russian reliance on unguided munitions is cheaper—but piles pressure on logistics. “They might need to fire 60 rounds to get the same effect as we do from one [precision] round…Obviously that gets very difficult from the sustainment perspective,” he said.

“It’s also profoundly unsafe. You hit a Russian vehicle full of ammo, it will just explode.”

Mr. Michel of IISS said the Ukrainians shouldn’t assume the Russians won’t adapt in the face of their logistical struggles. “The Russian armed forces are usually good at learning lessons,” he said.


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